Wednesday, 24 September 2014

CLARIEL by Garth Nix - review

So here it is, the long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s fabulously successful Old Kingdom series, and from the opening pages in which an old beachcomber finds a bottle of thick green glass, with a silver stopper ‘secured to the neck with bright wires still yellow and warm’ - it doesn’t disappoint. While you’re still yelling ‘Don’t open the bottle!’ - you should never open the bottle - a Free Magic power is unleashed into the city of Belisaere.

Set six centuries earlier than Sabriel, Clariel shows Old Kingdom society on the brink of catastrophe, fiddling while Rome burns: complacent, degenerate and unmindful of danger. Even the King and the Abhorsen neglect their duties, leaving the city of Belisaere in the grasping hands of scheming Guildmaster Kilp. Into this potent mix enters seventeen year-old Clariel, descendent of both the royal line and the Abhorsens.

Garth Nix is particularly good at writing about women as people. His heroines know their own minds, they have important stuff to do: and there’s not a love-triangle in sight. Sabriel is cool-headed and brave; Lirael self-doubting and timid, but ultimately equally determined. Clariel is a strong-willed, impatient young woman who feels trapped and unhappy in the city to which her parents have brought her. Her father is devoted to supporting the career of her mother Jaciel, an uncompromising artist and brilliant goldsmith. Neither parent takes time really to understand their problematic daughter, and they use her as leverage to further Jaciel’s ambitions – yet the unacknowledged strength of the family bond becomes a trigger for cataclysm in one of the most striking and emotionally charged scenes of the book.

Clariel longs for a life of solitary freedom in the forest, but this simple ambition leads to conflict and danger. Hampered by ignorance – of the Charter, of her family history, and of her own weaknesses and strengths – she acts for the best, but her judgement is far from reliable. Untutored in Charter Magic, she can draw upon her own inherited ability of running berserk - a frighteningly unstable power. Clariel is a fascinating but flawed character in an unforgiving world.

Let me finally say that Garth Nix is just unparallelled at creating magical/alien creatures. (The only other writer I can think of who’s anything like as good is Larry Niven.) Fans of the series will be thrilled to encounter new Free Magic entities (and even perhaps an old friend). Filled with magic, politics, rebellions, plots and surprises, Clariel is a hugely enjoyable book and one I know I'll re-read. I loved it and so will you.

Garth will be touring the UK from 28th September.  Details:

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Re-reading Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I have two very different personal memories relating to this book. One, vividly happy, is from childhood. The other comes from a time when I was a young adult working in London, and it still makes me cringe.

The childhood one first: aged nine, I woke one night to hear my parents criss-crossing the landing and my eight-year old brother crying in the bedroom next to mine. I called out and was told to be good, my brother was poorly, go back to sleep. Next morning I found he’d been rushed to hospital during the night. At a party the previous week, the children had been tossing each other cocktail sausages and trying to catch them in their mouths; my brother had swallowed one whole, stick and all. He hadn’t wanted to explain this in detail to my mother, as he thought she’d be cross. It perforated his intestine, and since the wooden stick didn’t show up on X-rays, the surgeon had to perform a major operation to find it. I’ve never felt comfortable around cocktail sticks since.

My brother stayed in hospital for some time. In those days the visiting rules were strict. I wasn’t allowed to see him, but I could see that he was (deservedly) being deluged with treats, toys and other goodies from friends and relations. To keep sibling rivalry in balance, my parents bought me the book I’d been longing for, the only Narnia book I hadn’t yet read: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. While they went visiting I curled up in an armchair – I can still feel its bristly upholstery against my knees – and was swept away into an open-air world drenched in light – the light of sunrise over the sea, the quiet sunlit passages of the Magician’s House, sunbeams slanting through the green waters of the undersea world, birds flying out of the rising sun to the table of the Three Sleepers, the almost painful light of the Silver Sea.

...when they returned aft to the cabin and supper, and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and thought of unknown lands on the Eastern rim of the world, Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak.

Now for the second memory. I’m in my early twenties, chatting to a colleague, Richard. For some reason we are talking about the Narnia books, which he hasn’t read but is willing to try.  Which one should he start with?  ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘my favourites are The Silver Chair and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I can quote from the beginning of that one.’ And I do: ‘“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”’  Richard starts to smile, and I continue from memory:  “He didn’t call his father and mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’, but Harold and Alberta. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers, and wore a special kind of underclothes.”’ Richard’s smile disappears. He says stiffly, flushing, ‘I call my parents by their first names, as it happens; and I’m vegetarian too.’

And thus I learned, not before time, that unthinking admiration for an old favourite can land you in the soup. What an idiot I was!  Why hadn’t I noticed that Lewis was so prejudiced? Could he truly have believed that a dislike of tobacco, alcohol and meat makes a person some kind of prissy, unimaginative bore? Could he? Sigh.

TVDT doesn’t become the book I fell in love with until the story – and ship – gets beyond the Lone Islands. There are just too many unexamined value judgements going on before then. I don’t know if I need to pick them all apart, but how about this one, on only the second page of the story, where Lewis explains why Edmund and Lucy are staying with Eustace at all. Peter, it seems, is being coached for an exam by the old Professor. The children’s parents are going to America and taking Susan with them.

Grown-ups thought her the pretty one of the family and she was no good at school work (though otherwise very old for her age) and Mother said she “would get far more out of a trip to America than the youngsters”.

‘Pretty’ ‘no good at school work’ and ‘old for her age’ – a euphemism for sexual precocity – this, not The Last Battle, is the book in which Lewis dismisses Susan: and he never gives her another chance. Susan’s trip to America, though sanctioned by her mother, is viewed by Lewis as a dangerous frivolity, a trip to Vanity Fair or worse, and what she will ‘get out of it’ is – to use an old term of religious disapproval –  worldliness. Why a liking for lipstick and nylons should be more worldly than a taste for tobacco and beer, I don’t know, but this is farewell to Susan the archer, Susan the swimmer, Susan the gentle who ‘was so tender-hearted that she almost hated to beat someone who had been beaten already’. It’s all very silly.

Back to Eustace!

‘Still playing your old games?’ said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking about Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.

As the story begins, Eustace is certainly spoiled, irritating, bad-tempered, self-centred and sneaky. This is staple fare for a children’s book: Roald Dahl does far nastier things with some of his characters, and anyway, in the tradition of Kipling’s ‘Captains Courageous’, the voyage will make a man of Eustace. But stupid’? No! Eustace isn’t stupid, just inexperienced and a bad mixer. He doesn’t enjoy fiction (or hasn’t been given much) and is therefore very ill-prepared for the adventure about to befall him. But his wonderful diaries full of self-deception, self-justification and complaints are the comical high point of the book, as funny as Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole – on whom Eustace must surely have been an influence.

6th September
A horrible day. Woke up in the night knowing I was feverish and must have a drink of water. Any doctor would have said so.  Heaven knows I’m the last person to try to get any unfair advantage but I never dreamed this water-rationing would be meant to apply to a sick man. In fact I would have woken the others up and asked for some only I thought it would be selfish to wake them. So I got up and took my cup and tiptoed out of the Black Hole we’ve been sleeping in, taking great care not to disturb Caspian and Edmund, for they’ve been sleeping badly since the heat and the short water began. I always try to consider others whether they are nice to me or not.

Eustace’s own adventure begins when the Dawn Treader drops anchor in a steep-sided valley – drawn here with a hint of Chinese delicacy by Pauline Baynes. Avoiding the work of setting the ship to rights he slips off into the interior and gets lost. Finding himself in a deep, bare, rocky ravine, he hears a noise behind him and turns to see…

The thing that came out of the cave was something he had never even imagined – a long, lead-coloured snout, dull red eyes, no feathers or fur, a long lithe body that trailed on the ground, legs whose elbows went up higher than its back like a spider’s. Bat’s wings that made a rasping noise on the stones, yards of tail. 

…It reached the pool and slid its horrible scaly chin down over the gravel to drink, but before it had drunk there came from it a great croaking or clanging cry, and after a few twitches and convulsions it rolled round on its side and lay perfectly still with one claw in the air.  A little dark blood gushed from its wide-opened mouth. The smoke from its nostrils turned black for a moment and then floated away. No more came.

I said this book was full of light and so it is, but there’s a lot of darkness too. As a description of death, this is about as grotesque and physical as books for young children get. All the dragons I’d ever read about were strong and splendid, requiring a St George at least to quell them. This weary, repulsive creature dies alone of natural causes before it can even get a drink of water – a touch which makes it pitiable, too. A cave full of treasure, and all it wants at the end is a sip of water! Which may become Eustace’s own fate as, gloating over the dragon’s hoard, he falls asleep with a diamond bracelet pushed up over his elbow. 
All children know the panicky moment when a sweater sticks as you pull it over your head, or when a ring won’t come off your finger and your mother tries to ease it over your bruised knuckle with soap.

The bracelet which had fitted very nicely on the upper arm of a boy was far too small for the thick, stumpy foreleg of a dragon. It had sunk deeply into his scaly flesh and there was a throbbing bulge on each side of it. He tore at the place with his dragon’s teeth but could not get it off.

It’s an unforgettable evocation of horror, self-loathing and the sensation of being trapped inside oneself.  Behave like a dragon, and you’ll become one; you are what you do. It’s the obverse of Socrates’ ‘Be what you wish to seem.’ (All in Plato, it’s all in Plato…)  Eustace’s priorities are about to be rearranged, and his first need is to communicate, even with dragon claws and muscles that can barely write:


It takes Aslan to strip off the horny layers of dragon hide from which Eustace will emerge reborn, and CS Lewis summarises the pain, difficulty and satisfaction of the healing process in a brilliant metaphor any child can recognise: picking off a scab. ‘It hurts like billy-oh, but it is such fun to see it coming away.’

TVDT isn’t Eustace’s story alone, though. This is made clear in the next chapter, ‘Two narrow escapes’. So much happens in this book, I’d forgotten about the sea-serpent which almost crushes the ship to matchwood and then goes sniffing along its own body looking for wreckage with an expression of ‘idiotic satisfaction’ on its face. A purely physical danger, it’s a good contrast to the spiritual sickness embodied in the dragon. But a far graver peril awaits them at the next island.

The bottom of the pool was made of large greyish-blue stones, and the water was perfectly clear, and on the bottom lay a life-size figure of a man, made apparently of gold. It lay face downwards with its arms stretched above its head. …Lucy thought it was the most beautiful statue she had ever seen. 

But this water turns everything it touches to gold, and what seemed a statue is really a horror: the body of one of the seven lords they have come to seek. Only by chance have the children escaped the same fate. But there’s a worse danger.

‘The King who owned this island,’ said Caspian slowly, and his face flushed as he spoke, ‘would soon be the richest of all the Kings of the world. I claim this land forever as a Narnian possession. It shall be called Goldwater Island. And I bind all of you to secrecy. No one must know of this. Not even Drinian – on pain of death, do you hear?’

‘On pain of death’?  It’s clear that Eustace is not the only one vulnerable to greed. Caspian is a King, and what do Kings do but acquire lands and power? In this passage he reveals a high-handed, bullying side to his character which suggests he could go either way – just ruler or cruel despot.

When Caspian threatens his friends for the sake of wealth and power, we see the story focussing on intangible, internal adventures more than on physical ones.  Yes, there’s always plenty of action and excitement, but as with Frodo Baggins and the Ring, the real dangers are moral and spiritual. There may be squabbles and disagreements in other books, but this is the only one of the seven Narnia stories in which Lewis allows for the real possibility of ‘good’ characters changing for the worse. True, Aslan or his image steps in each time to avert real disaster, but the danger exists. Each of the main characters (save Edmund whose trial came in the first book) is put to the test. Like the knights on the Grail Quest, Caspian and even Lucy falter along the way, and only Reepicheep, Narnia’s Galahad, will succeed. For now, though, as Caspian and Edmund begin to quarrel and Lucy to scold, Aslan passes warningly along the hillside and recalls them to their senses.

When I was a child, the island-hopping voyage of Caspian and his friends to the End of the World seemed completely original, but I know now that C.S. Lewis was borrowing from the very old Irish voyage tales known as immrama, in each of which a hero or saint – Bran, Maelduin, Brendan – sets out for some kind of Otherworld, stopping at a number of fantastic or miraculous islands along the way.  Written in the Christian era, they hark back to older pre-Christian Celtic voyage tales, and were probably themselves influenced by the classical tales of the Odyssey and Argonautika. 

Saint Brendan, for example, puts out into the Atlantic Ocean in a hide boat – a curragh – with twelve companions. In search of Paradise, the Land of the Blessed, he spends years wandering the ocean from island to island: the island of the ‘Comely Hound’ which leads them to a hall with a table spread with food; the Island of Sheep, ‘every sheep the size of an ox’; ‘The Paradise of Birds’, on which some of the angels who fell with Lucifer live as small birds all rejoicing and singing the matins and the verses of the psalms.  

The islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the dragon island, the Dark Island where dreams come true, the Island of the Dufflepuds, the island of The Three Sleepers – these are deliberate echoes of Brendan’s islands or those visited by the Irish hero Maeldune: thirty or so marvellous islands and other wonders, including this:

            The Very Clear Sea

They went on after that till they came to a sea that was like glass, and so clear it was that the gravel and the sand of the sea could be seen through it, and they saw no beasts or monsters at all among the rocks, but only the clean gravel and the grey sand.  And through a great part of the day they were going over that sea, and it is very grand it was and beautiful.

Saint Brendan too encounters a clear sea, while saying mass:

So clear that they could see to the bottom, and it was all as covered with a great heap of fishes.  …And the fishes awoke and started up and came all around the ship in a heap, that they could hardly see the water for fishes.  But when the mass was ended each one of them turned himself and swam away, and they saw them no more.

The clear water is repeated in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Silver Sea’: 

'How beautifully clear the water is' said Lucy to herself as she leaned over the port side early in the afternoon...'I must be seeing the bottom of the sea; fathoms and fathoms down.'  

Like the immrama, TVDT is the story of a spiritual quest. ‘Do you think,’ says Lucy, ‘Aslan’s country would be that sort of country – I mean, the sort you could ever sail to?’  The answer of the immrama is a qualified yes. Brendan and his companions reach the edges of their Blessed Land:

…clear and lightsome, and the trees full of fruit on every bough… and the air neither hot nor cold but always one way, and the delight that they found there could never be told. Then they came to a river that they could not cross but they could see beyond it the country that had no bounds to its beauty.  Then there came to them a young man… and took [Brendan] by the hand and said to him…

‘Here is the country you have been in search of, but it is our Lord’s will you should go back again and make no delay… And this river you see here is the mering,’ he said, ‘that divides the worlds, for no man may come to the other side of it while he is in life; [and when he dies] it is then there will be leave to see this country towards the world’s end.’

Praising God and laden with fruit of the country and precious stones, Brendan returns to Ireland and dies, his whole mind set on the heaven he has already seen. In the same spirit, Reepicheep sails over the edge of the world in his coracle, ‘and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse.  But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.’

No wonder Lewis wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Reading these old tales, the writer in me longs to snatch up a pen and begin making one of my own.  When the children catch a glimpse of Narnia’s own Land of the Blessed, Aslan’s country, over the top of the stationary wave at the world’s edge, Lewis recounts it in the same flat yet awed manner of the immrama – the voice of one simply reporting or recording genuine wonders.

Eastwards – beyond the sun – was a range of mountains.  It was so high that either they never saw the top or they forgot it.  None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction.  And the mountains must really have been outside the world.  For any mountains even a quarter or a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them.  But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked.  And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them.  …It brought a smell and a sound, a musical sound.  Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards.  Lucy could only say, ‘It would break your heart.’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘was it so sad?’  ‘Sad!! No,’ said Lucy. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After the adventure of Goldwater/Deathwater Island, the next landfall for the ship is the Island of the Voices – comic, if slightly sinister relief after the strain of the past few adventures. The invisible, thumping creatures whose voices (‘the isle is full of noises’) alarm Caspian and his friends turn out to be servants of a powerful and equally invisible magician, whose spell only ‘a little girl’ can undo. Alone, Lucy sets off upstairs into the quiet sunlit interior of the Magician’s House

… perhaps a bit too quiet. It would have been nicer if there had not been strange signs painted in scarlet on the doors – twisty, complicated things which obviously had a meaning and it mightn’t be a very nice meaning either.  

I’ve always loved this bit, rich and cosy and creepy – the silence, the masks, the strange Bearded Glass, and the Magician’s Book which you could only read if you turned your back on an open door. I loved the spells, too. Of course Lucy wants to try one – who wouldn’t?  And Pauline Baynes’ gorgeous illustration only makes it all the more tempting.

An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Like Galadriel tempted by the Ring (‘All shall love me, and despair’) Lucy is tempted to speak the words which will transform her into another Helen, a cause of wars to lay Narnia and its neighbour countries waste.  There’s also a strong dash of sibling rivalry: the magical book shows her Susan, ‘only plainer and with a nasty expression… jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now’. We knew Edmund was jealous of Peter, but Lewis has never told us before that Lucy is jealous of Susan (in reality it has to be that way around) and the effect here is both to humanise Lucy and demonise Susan even though we know it’s all Lucy’s fantasy.

‘I will say the spell,’ said Lucy. ‘I don’t care. I will.’

This book of spells is Lucy’s test and like Eustace-the-dragon and Caspian, she fails it. Once again Aslan has to intervene, his painted face appearing on the page ‘growling, and you could see most of his teeth’. Frightened, Lucy turns the page only to gabble another, lesser spell that ‘would let you know what your friends thought about you’, which teaches her the age-old lesson that listeners never hear good of themselves. Next comes a spell ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’, and finally the one she’s looking for, ‘A Spell to make hidden things visible’. On repeating it, Aslan himself appears,in tender but chiding mood – the Magician is revealed to be a sort of benign exiled Prospero, and we meet the Duffers or Monopods. 

Lucy has succumbed to vanity and curiosity, which Lewis probably considered female faults. Unlike Susan, Lucy is forgiven them: the spell for ‘refreshment of the spirit’ with its Gospel hints of ‘a cup and a sword and a green hill’ seems to cleanse her.

Next comes the terrible Dark Island ‘where dreams – dreams, do you understand – come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.’  More strong meat for my nine-year old self, who like most children knew plenty about the sorts of dreams ‘that make you afraid of going to sleep again’. Reading it as a child, I completely understood that the Dark Island is not a physical place at all; the ship never comes to land.  All this terror and madness and horror is happening inside the minds of the crew.  It’s fabulous writing. (‘Can you hear a noise … like … like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting… over there?’)  I understood that somehow, the characters have to escape from themselves – out of their own heads. The tension as they try to row out of the darkness… will they ever get out?  Will anyone in the blackness of despair ever make it? 

The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst into a horrible screaming laugh. ‘Never get out!’ he yelled. ‘That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No no, we shall never get out.’

But by Aslan’s help, they do. Is that too easy?  I think not, because the emotion is true. The albatross which circles the ship crying in a ‘strong, sweet voice’ and which leads them back to the light may be Aslan, or Christ, or hope, or what you will, but Lewis knows help of some kind is necessary: there are few who can drag themselves out of depression unaided. The relief and joy of finding the sunlight once again is almost palpable.

More light follows this darkness at the ship’s next landfall, the Island of the Sleepers. Here the last three lost Narnian lords lie in an enchanted stupor, having touched the Stone Knife that lies on Aslan’s Table. Caspian and his company wait uneasily around the Table till dawn at the behest of Reepicheep the Mouse (‘no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing when I get back to Narnia that I left a mystery behind me though fear’) while strange constellations burn in the eastern sky.  Here they meet Ramandu and his daughter, and see the birds flocking to the Table from the rising sun. From this point on, the story is all wonder and enchantment and Ramandu, the old star, hints they are on the edge of spiritual awakening or rebirth

‘Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.’

I haven’t yet said much about Reepicheep. He is truly Narnia’s Galahad, not its Lancelot. Lancelot is the Round Table’s best earthly knight, but he is fallible, he has passions and faults which make us love and admire him the more because we can see ourselves in him. Galahad is inhumanly virtuous, courteous and brave. TH White had some fun with him in The Once and Future King: looked at one way he’s a prig, it’s difficult to like him.  Reepicheep is as virtuous, courteous and brave as Galahad, but he’s lovable simply because he isn’t human, but a gallant Talking Mouse about two feet high, with dark, almost black fur: ‘A thin band of gold passed around its head under one ear and over the other, and in this was stuck a long crimson feather.’  Reepicheep sets a high – almost too high – example to Caspian and his company. On Ramandu’s Island, Caspian’s crew begins to mutiny, longing for home like Alexander’s soldiers who refused to cross the Ganges.

‘Aren’t you going to say anything, Reep?’ whispered Lucy.

‘No.  Why should your Majesty expect it?’ answered Reepicheep in a voice that most people heard. ‘My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek will be head of the talking mice in Narnia.’

Perfection is inhuman.  This is made clear when only Reepicheep is unmoved by the terror of the Dark Island. ‘There are some things no man can face,’ Caspian exclaims as he orders the retreat.

‘It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,’ replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.

We can tolerate Reepicheep’s disapproval because he’s an animal. He doesn’t understand or share our fears. Nothing stands between him and the best. He is both less than us, and greater. When finally, ‘quivering with happiness’, he hurls his sword into the Silver Sea (like Arthur at the brink of Avalon) and sets off alone in the coracle, swooping up the green glassy breast of the wave to vanish forever over the crest, it still brings tears to my eyes.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is at an end. It is time for Caspian to turn back, even though he longs to go on. His last tantrum over, he accepts his duty and destiny to return to rule well and wisely over Narnia. For Edmund and Lucy, it is their last time here. Though they have come close, so close, to the fringes of Aslan’s country, like Caspian they must turn their faces towards their own world.

But we shall meet Eustace – and Caspian – again, in the next book. 

Picture credits:
All artwork by the wonderful Pauline Baynes